Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: Myra Breckinridge, by Gore Vidal

I must admit, I am a real sucker for a “voice” novel. From Huck Finn to Money, from The Colour Purple to Everything Is Illuminated, from Come, Thou Tortoise to A Clockwork Orange, I am deeply susceptible to books that strive toward their own zany idiolects. (Full disclosure: I’m putting the final touches on my own zany voice novel now.) Gore Vidal’s shocking, subversive 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge definitely fits into the genre’s grand tradition; and through his wily, transsexual,  psychotic protagonist, Vidal achieves an idiolect as compelling as any you will find in literature.

The story goes: our titular antihero, obsessed with the golden age of film, arrives in Hollywood to take a teaching job at the “Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses,” a two-bit college run by Buck Loner, the uncle of Myra’s so-called deceased husband, Myron. She claims through Myron’s death partial ownership of the school, and while Buck attempts to substantiate her assertion, Myra takes on the chore of teaching classes called “Posture” and “Empathy.” The school teems with mediocre, untalented students (indeed, in the academy’s entire seven-year history, not a single graduate has managed to land a career in show business), and Myra latches on to two current ones: Mary-Ann Pringle and her strapping young boyfriend, Rusty Godowsky.

Myra is determined to force her dominating womanhood onto these two students, to drive a wedge between them so she can exact a kind of revenge on what she considers to be traditional masculinity. What ensues is a drawn-out, incredibly vivid, and utterly believable sexual assault on poor Rusty. Claiming he suffers from a twisted spine that is limiting his acting career, Myra lures him to the school’s infirmary to perform a late-night physical examination on him. By exploiting his implicit trust in her, and by gradually blurring the lines between a clinical interaction and a sexual one, Myra is able to get Rusty strapped face down on a table with his pants off. She then sodomizes him with a strap-on dildo, thus achieving her goal of shattering his manhood and destroying his relationship with Mary-Ann.
Yet the plot grows more complex on other fronts. Vidal introduces us to a cunning talent agent named Letitia Van Allen who shows an inordinate interest in Rusty that thwarts Myra’s plans (and also turns the boy into a star). Meanwhile, Buck Loner eventually uncovers the truth about this pushy, mysterious woman teaching at his school: Myra isn’t the widow of Myron at all; she is in fact Myron himself, following gender-reassignment surgery, a procedure that Myra underwent after encouragement from her therapist, Randolph Montag. She also, over the course of the novel, attends an orgy hosted by a group of men called the Four Skins along with some of the more sexually adventurous young coeds from the school.

The novel ends as subversively as it begins. Myra is involved in a car accident that results in her losing her silicone breasts and unable to take the hormones needed to maintain her femininity. She soon reverts back to being a man – at least, a castrated one – and ends up living with Mary-Ann. Vidal, through all this, is trying to undermine various notions around sex, gender, dominance and rape, and what he has created is a zesty, provocative exploration of all these things and more.

Vidal wrote this novel, or so the story goes, in just a couple of months, and it took just a few more after publication to sell 2 million copies. It’s a book everyone seemed to be talking about in the late 1960s, but not one that gets a lot of attention now. This may partly be due to Vidal’s overall standing in our literary culture, which has suffered greatly since his death in 2012. But this is a book that people should still be reading, because its themes and obsessions are very much relevant today. And as far as voice novels go, it is definitely one of the best.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Review: Hedda Gabler, The Pillars of the Community, and The Wild Duck, by Henrik Ibsen

It was somewhat fortuitous this month that I began reading a collection of Henrik Ibsen plays (picked up for 50 cents at a street-side yard sale in our neighbourhood last summer) as my wife and I had tickets to Canadian Stage’s production of Hedda Gabler going right now. I was hitherto unschooled in the works of this great Norwegian playwright – somehow Ibsen just never landed on my radar – and Hedda Gabler was a fabulous place to start.

Engrossing, comic, and tightly constructed, the play is an exploration of willful ignorance, career anxiety, and the manipulations of the soul. Hedda and her new husband, the recently graduated PhD student, Jorgen Tesmen, have just returned home after a luxuriating five-month honeymoon abroad. They move in to what Tesmen assumes is his bride’s dream house, and prepare themselves for Tesmen’s interview at a local university where he is all but presumed to land a position that has just opened up. But we soon learn that there is more to their marriage than first meets the eye: Hedda is deeply unsatisfied with life and looks for ways to shake herself free of her melancholic, housewife boredom.

The situation takes a turn when the couple finds out that a rival of Tesmen’s, a ne’er do well named Ejlert Lovborg, has returned to town and has just published a well-received book in the same area of scholarship as Tesmen’s. Now there is competition for the role at the university, and Hedda, driven by an unconscionable desire to cause harm to those around her - and her own complicated past with this rival - sets in motion a plan to stop Lovborg. Her wayward accomplice is a local judge named Brack, who is manipulating the situation from behind the scenes. Ultimately, the plan that Hedda launches backfires against her and she must now face the life that cannot be hers. With a nod to that famous Chekhovian maxim, she makes her ultimate decision.

The play does a tremendous job of examining Hedda’s psychopathy, her need to control the fates of those around her, to destroy lives at her whim so that her own life may have some meaning. The Can Stage production takes a gamble by moving the play out of its standard timeframe (the late 19th century) and into the 1950s. But the new adaption works, and actor Cara Ricketts is stellar as Hedda. Her longing and anguish is nearly palpable on the stage, to the point that we come extremely close to feeling something like sympathy for this play’s titular character.

Reading The Pillars of the Community and The Wild Duck alongside Hedda Gabler reinforced what are obviously a number of Ibsen’s key themes. Pillars looks at the length a man in power will go to maintain his status in and influence over society. Reading this play, about an industrialist who manipulates those around him to gain access to a treasured piece of land, reminds us that there is a thin line between exploiting opportunities and exploiting people. The Wild Duck, in turn, conjures more Chekhovian references, with a death scene at the end that echoes the same, powerful conclusion to Hedda Gabler. All three plays reveal a writer obsessed with the derangement that comes when intense desires we don’t even understand feel just beyond our reach.    

Friday, January 22, 2016

Update: Time change for January 28 reading

For those of you looking to come out to the reading I'm taking part in here in Toronto, along with writers Jeff Bursey,S.D. Chrostowska, and Rebecca Rosenblum, please note: Due to a double booking on the part of the venue, Supermarket, we need to begin the event earlier. The doors will now open at 6 pm and the readings will start at 6:30 sharp. Hope y'all are still able to come out.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My Quill and Quire review of Last Words, by Hugh Graham ...

... has been posted to the Q&Q website. My review of this one was fairly mixed, though I did feel that Graham made the most of the (very well-covered) territory he chose to write about. Interconnected short story collections are always tricky, but I felt Graham handled the book's structure and characters fairly well. If the book sounds like something you'd be interested in, I recommend you go check it out.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Review: Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler

Where lies the nexus between obligation and love? This is a question that author Anne Tyler tackles in her 1991 novel Saint Maybe, about a family altered by tragedy and forced to confront the responsibilities that fate bestows upon them against their wishes. Along the way, we learn that all love carries with it some form of duty, and all duty, even when it’s not of our immediate choosing, can bring with it a kind of love.

As the novel opens, in the late 1960s, the Bedloe family of Baltimore, MD appears to have an idyllic life: Breading winning father, loving homemaker mom, and three children at the cusp (or just beginning) their adult lives and destined for happiness and success. Youngest son Ian is in his last year of high school; middle child Danny is a couple years out and has a good job at the post office; and eldest daughter Claudia is happily married and popping out the babies. But their perfect lives take a turn when Danny announces that he has fallen in love with a mysterious customer at the post office, a divorcee named Lucy who has two small children from her previous marriage, Agatha and Thomas. The Bedloes are somewhat stirred up by the sudden appearance of this strange woman in their lives, but are supportive when Danny announces that he and Lucy are rapidly getting married.

Seven months later, Lucy gives birth to their daughter Daphne, whom everyone claims was simply premature. But Ian grows suspicious, and he soon begins to think that there is more to Lucy than meets the eye. Convinced that she is cheating on his brother, Ian confronts Danny about his suspicions. Shortly thereafter, Danny is involved in a fatal car accident that may have been a suicide. The Bedloes are now on the hook to help Lucy with her children, even if one of them may not even be their own blood.

Things get complicated further when Lucy’s life spirals out of control and she dies from an overdose of sleeping pills. Now her three kids are orphans, and Ian, feeling guilty that his (as it turns out, unfounded) suspicions about Lucy caused his brother’s suicide, and, by extension, Lucy’s death, turns to an obscure religion called the Church of the Second Chance to help with his troubled conscience. The minister, a man named Reverend Emmett, tells Ian that he cannot simply ask God for forgiveness. He must act in order to be forgiven.

So Ian steps up to the plate to raise the children himself. By now he has completed less than a year of college, but drops out to assume the role of parent. He takes a blue-collar carpenter job to pay the bills. The years pass, and the novel details how Ian comes to raise these children who have a tenuous connection to him at best, and how the act of doing so causes opportunity after opportunity to pass him by. Even as the children age and find love and ambitions and desires of their own, Ian is forever saddled by both his guilt and by his devotion to his religion that keeps him in this position of penitence. The decades pass. Near the end of the novel, with Ian now in his early 40s and Daphne, Agatha and Thomas all grown up, Ian finds love with a 30-year-old woman named Rita. The problem? She wants to have kids, but Ian feels that that phase of his life has already passed. But the nexus of love and obligation meets again, and Ian ends up giving Rita what she wants and finds a way to make himself happy even though their wishes do not align.

There is obviously a lot going on in this expansive novel, but Saint Maybe never feels tedious or overwritten. Like a lot of Tyler’s writing, this novel seems to slip between genres. In this way, it reminds me a little of the works of John Irving: not quite commercial fiction, but not quite reliably literary either. What we do have here are the tropes of family and devotion and God and the sheer drudgery that is sometimes needed to meet the demands of each. Saint Maybe reminds us that the structures of our self image and the obligations that life that throw randomly at us are not necessarily at odds. They can be inescapably bundled together, and even in the face of something terrible happening that we did not expect, we can still use the vagaries of fate to build a life for ourselves that has meaning and purpose.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Upcoming event: Toronto

Hey Toronto folks: I'm very happy to announce that I'll be doing a reading from The Secrets Men Keep at an event later this month. I'll be sharing a stage with my friend Jeff Bursey (who will be in town promoting his new book Mirrors on which dust has fallen), along with S.D. Chrostowska and my wife, Rebecca Rosenblum. Here are the details:

Where: The Supermarket Restaurant and Bar - 268 Augusta Ave, Toronto.
When: Thursday, January 28 at 7 pm.
Admission: FREE. Books will be for sale.
Facebook invitation

So come on out for a great night of readings.